Alpine Bingam lawsuit charges town office decision was ‘unduly influenced’
MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury man has filed a civil lawsuit against the town of Middlebury, Middlebury College, the Addison Independent and Bread Loaf Corp., alleging their collective actions “unduly influenced” the electorate prior to votes held earlier this year on a $6.5 million municipal building/recreation center project.
The plaintiff, Alpine Bingham, claims the four entities he is suing sought to manipulate voters by highlighting the single project that Middlebury residents approved first on March 4, and then again, after the same proposal was petitioned for reconsideration, on May 13.
The project in question involves construction of a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation center off Creek Road. Middlebury College has agreed to underwrite $4.5 million in construction costs in return for a town-owned parcel off Cross Street (to which the Osborne House at 77 Main St. will be relocated) and the current town office property at 94 Main St. The college is offering an additional $1 million to relocate the Osborne House and clear the 94 Main St. site, which will be turned into a public park.
It’s a project that generated a lot of fiery debate in town between supporters and opponents of the plan. Opponents objected to, among other things, the manner in which the buildings were planned and sited. Some residents objected to the town including 94 Main St. (the municipal building site) in the deal and argued the new municipal building would not feature adequate parking and would hinder growth of the adjacent Ilsley Library.
Supporters maintained the proposal would net the town two new durable buildings at a reduced cost, that those buildings would be more energy efficient, and they would greatly reduce the ongoing maintenance and facilities cost of the existing buildings. In addition, supporters day, the approved proposal would strengthen the town’s long-term tax capacity.
Bingham, a project opponent, filed his lawsuit at the Addison County Courthouse on May 27. His allegations against the entities he names in his lawsuit include:
•Middlebury College used its “donated tax-exempt money” to accomplish its “main goal” of acquiring the 94 Main St., property.
“The use of $5.5 million in tax-exempt funds to unduly influence a municipal election in this way is both a bribe and a threat,” Bingham states in his lawsuit.
Bingham also alleges that the college’s concurrent donation to the town of the Lazarus building property at 22 Main St. is “not for any educational purpose and another bribe.”
•The Addison Independent “infringed on (his) 1st Amendment rights” by not publishing Bingham’s own, alternative concept for a municipal building project. Bingham brought his proposed design to the Independent offices on Friday, May 9 — a time during which the Monday, May 12, edition of the newspaper was being completed on deadline. The May 12 edition would have been put before voters the day before the revote on the building proposal.
Bingham claims the newspaper denied voters “crucial facts” and acted in self interest.
•The town of Middlebury never presented Bingham’s plan to the voters, while taxpayer money was spent “to promote one plan approved by Middlebury College.” He further alleges “the town of Middlebury did not conduct an informed, fair and impartial election, which needs to be overturned.”
•Bread Load Corp., hired by the town to design the project, also engaged in “unduly influencing the vote,” according to Bingham’s lawsuit, by advocating for, explaining and defending the plan it proposed.
Bingham is requesting the town office/recreation center bond votes of March 4 and May 13 be ruled invalid. He is also requesting that Middlebury College make “$7.5 million in punitive damages payable to the town of Middlebury to be disbursed according to the wishes of the voters of the town of Middlebury in elections supervised by the court.” He is requesting the college make an additional payment of $2 million in punitive damages payable to the Parent-Child Center of Addison County to use for a teen center. Bingham is also personally seeking punitive damages of $10,000 from the Addison Independent; $5,000 from Bread Loaf Corp.; and $7,500 from the town of Middlebury.
The Middlebury selectboard acknowledged the Bingham lawsuit at its June 10 meeting. The town has hired its attorney to represent the town in court. Taxpayers will pick up the legal bill for the town’s defense, said Town Manager Kathleen Ramsey, who noted that the town asked its insurance carrier to pick up the tab but the request was denied.
The lawsuit against the four entities, said Addison Independent publisher Angelo Lynn, are “frivolous, but unfortunately have to be defended and treated as if they have merit until they are ruled on by the court or dismissed. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars for the town’s defense, and will only cost Middlebury residents and these businesses more in the long-run for no valid reason.”
Bingham is also involved in a second civil suit on file at the county courthouse.
He is listed as the defendant in a lawsuit filed by TLOC Senior Living LLC, better known as The Lodge at Otter Creek, a retirement community located south of the village, off Middle Road.
The lawsuit alleges that Bingham claimed the trade name “The Lodge at Otter Creek” through the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office in July of 2013, after TLOC inadvertently let its business name registration become inactive in 2011.
TLOC officials said the business has been operating under the Lodge trade name since 2007. Through their attorneys at Langrock, Sperry & Wool, TLOC officials said Bingham claimed the name “even though he knew that ‘The Lodge at Otter Creek’ was, and had been, in use by TLOC … Indeed, Bingham did so out of malice and not for any legitimate business purpose, based upon his own testimony,” according to the TLOC lawsuit.
Bingham, the TLOC lawsuit alleges, had been involved in a right-of-way dispute with the business on behalf of his mother, Marilyn Bingham, who owns a farm adjacent to the retirement community.
After claiming “The Lodge at Otter Creek” business name, Bingham sent a letter to Gregg Beldock, a principal of TLOC, stating “Payback is a bitch, good neighbor!” according to the lawsuit.
Bingham also sent TLOC an invoice, purporting to bill the company $62 per day for use of the trade name, plus “anniversary fees” and “service charges,” according to the complaint. Bingham also warned the Addison Independent and the Burlington Free Press not to publish paid advertisements bearing the TLOC name, the lawsuit states. Bingham also threatened action against the town if it continued to review any applications filed using the trade name “The Lodge at Otter Creek,” according to the complaint.
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